Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”

7 thoughts on “Ivan was not ready.

  1. An insightful entry. I just finished going through this short story with my AP students. You mention Ivan’s “pleasant” life, but I didn’t feel that he experiences this at all. Rather, it seemed to me that he is fulfilling the expectations of everyone else while himself extremely unhappy. He is constantly trying to make himself content through marriage, material possessions and by climbing the ladder of success. Growing up he is, as the information we read about his childhood and the quote about the french idiom about the phoenix indicate, the “favored child.” Much is expected of him, and it is all bourgeois–superficial–in its nature. The family’s reputation and hopes for future status seem to hang on him. He only knows this way of life, and he tries to fulfill it without ever contemplating the meaning of it.

    From the beginning we see the consideration of religious concerns as his so-called “friends” go through the motions of caring when paying respects at his wake, but, we are told, not really caring. Instead, they hope to gain through his death. Peter crosses himself only because he sees it is expected. And as you say–no one wants to even think about his death, because after all–then they must consider that someday they, too, will meet this end. And I think that we all have this aversion; we don’t want to address it when friends die. It’s difficult to think about it, much less try to comfort our grieving relatives. I remember when my dear friend died of leukemia soon before we were to graduate from college. Her parents told me later that I was the only one of her friends who kept in contact. I didn’t feel pleased: I felt convicted, because I also had struggled with my desire to avoid keeping in touch. Every connection with them painfully reminded me of the young friend I had lost, and too, I was reminded of my own mortality. The fact that she was a Christian was of great comfort, but it didn’t seem to lessen the temptation to just run away from her family, who were and are wonderful people.

    I told my students last week that this story is an encapsulation of the Russian spirit, which is fundamentally religious. Therefore the story addresses the question presented in most Russian novels: What is life about, and why are we here? A painful, brilliantly told story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for this, Cindy. I think you are right, that he was not happy, and when he started talking with his soul and reviewing his life he had to go back to his childhood to find goodness, and saw that it was pretty much downhill from there.

      But he had been trying to do, as you say, the thing that was expected, at the same time trying to avoid unpleasant things or difficulties such as his wife. “His aim was to make himself more and more free from the unpleasant aspects of domestic life….” and his “most real pleasure was the pleasure of playing ‘screw,’ the Russian equivalent of bridge.” I made a note of the words “easy,” “agreeable,” and “decorous” that kept popping up.

      It sounds like you have an intimate understanding from personal history of the desire to avoid situations and relationships that remind one of death. Your story reminds me of when my goddaughter was dying, only weeks after my husband died, and I really felt that God was asking too much of me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps there is another reason why God forbids Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. God does not want them to have the knowledge and think they are like God. God wants them to be human and think as humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Have you been human or not? Boy, do I like that. I try to live my life by being kind, but actually, I think “human” might be better. Human-humane. I suppose it is somewhat the same. But it’s powerful, especially in today’s world.

    And I must say, your book club reads much harder books than mine!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The students at your church school are blessed. I know. I am one of them, even if far off. You unearth solid resources. Bloom and Robinson, very helpful commenters. I see that I need to read more widely. From now on when I hear that Gospel passage I might not shudder, but understand its range and applications. As usual, grateful here.

    Liked by 1 person

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